Mere War


“Hooty owl.”

“That’s not a real species.” In fairness to Dave, we were driving too quickly to pick out just what species it was. Also, the clacking nightmare made of madness and teeth menacing us occupied a substantial fraction of my attention. “Owls were beloved of Athena.”

“You sure about that? I thought it was Minerva.” I couldn’t tell if he was pulling my leg.

“You know that’s the same thing, right?”

We had left the dreadful hills of the coast behind and were rounding the bend on a derelict llama farm. Feral alpacas prowled the grounds, spoiling for combat. “Was she one of them war gods?”

“I don’t think so, no. You might be thinking of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt.”

“I believe the politically acceptable term is not gendered, Sam.” A knot of cinnamon-hued guanacos stomped the lumpy earth. “And if she ain’t about war, then what was her, you know, what do you call it? Bailiwick?”

I wondered briefly if bailiwick and bailiff had a common etymology. “I think she was the deity of wisdom and justice.”

“So then she was in charge of war.”

“How so?”

“I told you I was raised Catholic, right?”

I hoped he wasn’t about to launch into me for heresy. “I believe you might have mentioned it. Why?”

“Justice and war go together like… like peanut butter and chocolate. The two date back to the very earliest Christian philosophers. Augustine was totally cool with taking up arms in the service of God.” He motioned me to roll up my window, probably to ward against stray camelid spit. “The crux, you see (no pun intended, Sam) is justice. Romans 13:4 goes like this: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” He glanced at me, as if expecting a response. When none was forthcoming, he continued. “Get it? Scripture authorizes regular dudes like you and me to exact vengeance on God’s behalf.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, how do you square an explicit call to vengeance with the Christian principles of love, charity, and forgiveness?”

“Not sure. I never tried.”

“When I learned about this, I thought of it like this.” He honked the aged horn at a truculent llama. It trundled off the road and into the meadow. “Suppose a wicked dude was just running amok, slaughtering the innocent every which way.”

“Okay, I got it.”

“Now suppose all you had to do to stop him was stab him clean through the heart. One stab.” He made a stabbing motion with his free hand. “Stabby stab.”

“Yep, stab.”

“And if you declined to stab him, you just know he’d keep on with all the slaughtering.”

“Uh huh. He’s a bad dude, after all.”

“A wicked dude. Totally wicked. And the logic goes that if you had the means to end his wickedness but chose not to, you’d share a portion of his wickedness. The sin of killing a wicked dude is less than the sin of permitting his wickedness. So much so that killing could maybe even be a virtue.”

“So to hell with ‘thou shalt not kill?'”

“That’s a bad translation. The Hebrew word ratzakh is a lot closer to ‘murder’ in that it implies deliberately killing without justification.”

“How charmingly circular.”

“No one said justice is easy or self-evident.”

“True.” We had passed the grumpiest of the llamas, so I ventured to crack my window a bit again. “So Augustine let everyone know what it took for God to sanction a war? Because I don’t know if you’ve actually been in a war, but it’s almost never as cartoonish as what you just described.”

“Augustine was actually cagey on that part, which is kind of funny, since in most other cases, he stapled scripture straight onto the skeleton of neo-Platonism.”

“What a weird mixed metaphor.”

“In war, the proportional retribution favored by pagan philosophers clearly violates the Christian virtues of mercy, forbearance, and forgiveness. And I think that Augustine was a bright enough fellow to recognize that an element of deterrence can stop a wicked dude before he even starts with all the slaughtering.”

“A proto game theorist?”

“Dude, read The City of God sometime. You’d be surprised. It’s cover-to-cover backwards induction.”

“Sure, when we’re not trying to keep ahead of a hellswarm.”

“The punchline here is that he punted. Augustine was writing around 345, and it wasn’t until Aquinas in the 13th century that the Church bothered codifying the conditions for a just war.” He chuckled, as if it were a joke. “Better late than never, eh?” Judging by the ruins of the once-great civilization surrounding us, I suppose it was something of a cruel joke. Maybe it always has been.


“And what?”

“Don’t leave me hanging, Dave. What are the conditions for a just war according to Aquinas?”

“Mind you, this was the first pass at it, and the more modern just war doctrine is a bit different, but first off only a state can conduct war.”

“What? Really? I guess it sucks to be a nomad.”

“Yeah, maybe. I bet it had something to do with the fashion of the divine right of kings. Heads of state were God’s divine will on earth, so anointed to best promote the flourishing of humanity. The king, in his role as arbiter of The Lord’s justice, is the only one fit to decide if large-scale resistance meets the other criteria.”

“Sounds good on paper, I suppose. But give a dude a knife and see if he doesn’t end up cutting something. Remember what Madeleine Albright said.”

“She said a lot of stuff. Which one did you mean?”

“Something like ‘what’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?’ I think she asked this to Colin Powell. That’s the sort of person who typically ends up with the authority to wage war. Bloodthirsty and impetuous.”

Dave checked the rear view mirror, which was more of a challenge than you might expect, since it consisted of a shard taken from a woman’s compact lashed to a post clumsily welded to the interior. “Well, that was number one anyway. Number two was that war had to be for a good purpose, like righting a wrong, or remedying an injustice. Reclaiming territory lost to hostile conquest might qualify.”

“So Hitler annexing the Sudetenland or Russia’s claims in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were acceptable? Pardon my skepticism.”

“Think of these rules as minimum acceptable standards.”

“Uh huh. Sure.”

“Where was I? Number three, I think. Aquinas insisted that peace be the ultimate end of any conflict. This was the most Augustinian bit, I think. Fight only so far as to end the greater threat to peace. Get it?”

“Okay, so that was a first pass at a doctrine. What’s the latest version?”

“I finished my catechism in the late 80s, so forgive me if my recollection is dim, but we need the following:

“First, the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.

“Second, all other means of putting an end to conflict must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.

“Third, there must be serious prospects of success.

“And lastly, the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

He motioned toward me with a grimy thumb. “This last one goes to what you were talking about with Hitler and Stalin. Modern warfare makes the prospect of a just war a lot slimmer than it used to be.”

“Seems to me that war is going to happen whether or not it’s just. What’s the point of the doctrine?”

“Do you mean to ask what sort of sovereign will adhere to the doctrine as a practical matter?”

“Rules are meant to constrain behavior, aren’t they? I can see the use of the Geneva conventions, since they apply to ordinary Soldiers minding enemy combatants. Soldiers need rules, as the evidence of war atrocities clearly shows. But the decision to wage war in the first place is made by the head of state. Kings and Presidents are only minimally bound by their ethics. They are the very sort of people in society whose trade is defined by their capacity for dissembling, for obfuscating, for dominating. In the hands of a skilled politician, any old conflict from the Somaliland Campaign to arguably the closest thing the US had to a just war, World War II could be sold to a gullible public as justified.”

“You think so? I don’t know. The public didn’t much swallow Vietnam, at least not on college campuses. And lots of people got bent out of shape about Iraq 2: Electric Boogaloo. I’d bet you at least some of that opposition owes a debt to Aquinas.”

“So then the just war doctrine is meant to influence public opinion rather than elite behavior?”

“Dude, it’s the Catholic Church. Everything is about the congregation. The church only pays attention to heads of state in their role as acting as stewards for the preservation of human flourishing.”

“Interesting, Dave. I don’t think I ever looked at it that way.”

A modest parliament of owls overtook us. I heard Athena snicker as they flew past.

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